TEMPE, Ariz. – New to the job, new to the division, new to the left coast, Albert Pujols has a lot to catch up on.
The sun sets pink and orange over the sea.
Designated freeway lanes are little more than suggestions.
If you turn your cap backward while ignoring the designated freeway lanes in your Beamer, that's known as "keeping it real."
And the Dodgers are that little can-do franchise up the road.
It's a lot to take in at once.
In the midst of working through all that in Los Angeles last week, along with finding a place to settle his family, Pujols quite accidentally came upon the very reason he is a Los Angeles Angel.
On Thursday, as he got in a workout at Gold's Gym in Venice Beach, in walked Yu Darvish, who introduced himself.
"A really nice guy, Pujols said. "And really humble. He said he's looking forward to the battle. It's going to be fun."
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Two days later, Pujols was taking batting practice at USC's Dedeaux Field. A tall, limber kid was throwing a bullpen session nearby. Darvish again.
On Monday, at a news conference that followed his first day on the field for the Angels, Pujols smiled and shook his head. What a thing.
The Texas Rangers, back-to-back champions of the American League, just that close. The Angels, once regular purveyors of AL West titles, not that close, until Pujols came along, and now anything short of overtaking the Rangers would be not simply a disappointment but organizational calamity.
In many ways, the offseason ran through the AL West, and through the two men who couldn't find a Dogtown squat rack or downtown ball field without finding each other, too.
The Rangers, who certainly considered upgrading at first base and played along through parts of Pujols' free agency, instead saved their millions to better their starting rotation. That meant, rather than adding the top hitter on the market, they signed the top pitcher on the market, allowing their own ace – C.J. Wilson – to hitch on with the … Angels.
That Pujols and Darvish might come together a few months earlier than scheduled was a reminder, gentle as it may be, that an awful lot rides on that bat and that arm.
They've come west – Pujols from St. Louis, Darvish from the Far East – for riches, sure. But also they've come to start something new, to make the unfamiliar familiar.
Angels position players haven't officially reported, but Pujols was on a back field here Monday, trading turns in a batting cage with Kendrys Morales. Against hitting coach Mickey Hatcher, he pushed two bunts toward third base, then sent the next pitch on a line into left-center field.
Just like that, he'd signed a contract, boarded a plane, left behind 11 years of baseball in St. Louis, turned Cardinals red into Angels red, and fell into the routine that would change the course of both franchises.
He will not be asked to come quite the distance as Darvish – not as far as the game, the culture, the language, or the rhythms of American life – but change is change for Pujols, who is nothing if not rigid about his baseball.
On Monday he introduced himself to, as he called him, "the video guy," who stores the secrets of American League pitchers. It starts there, runs into exhibition games, and in six weeks will have Pujols in the batter's box, in a slight squat, his back elbow raised, his head tilted just so.
Darvish, who reports to the Rangers later this week, will follow a similar path, presumably starting with the video gaijin.
"You know what," Pujols said, "I had a great run and a great time in the city of St. Louis. You don't just flip that page."
But you sort of do.
Instead of Bill DeWitt Jr. watching him take batting practice, it's Arte Moreno. Instead of Tony La Russa – or, perhaps, Mike Matheny – talking about who hits in front of and behind Pujols, it's Mike Scioscia. Instead of Jupiter, Fla., it's Tempe, Ariz.
He house hunts in Newport Beach. He lifts with the animals in Venice. He hits on Mark McGwire's old college field.
And then, for the next 20 years, he wins – and loses – with the Angels.
"I already got fined," Pujols said with a grin. "My phone rang in the clubhouse."
During Scioscia's morning speech. Welcome, Albert. That'll be a hundred bucks.
"The game," he said, "it's about making adjustments. To be able to survive, I mean, I know it's a different chapter in my life, but I'm excited to go through those adjustments and to go through those challenges. If I have to put more time into it, more time than I have in the past, I will.
"I try to clear my mind and know what I need to do. I know how many swings I need to take and at-bats I need to have to be ready in April."
So it won't begin and end in St. Louis. That never felt more real than it did Monday, and perhaps Monday will pale by comparison to opening day. But it's happening. With every at-bat and every day, he becomes less of a Cardinal.
"It's something that obviously didn't happen," Pujols said. "I can't go back and feel sorry. Now it's time to move forward. Now is a new chapter in my life. It's time to open a new one."
He had chosen his course. And now he can choose his own lane. Or not.
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